In the Spring of 2012, synthetic biology researchers Denny Luan and Cindy Wu launched an experimental company, which tested a new approach for funding science. Crowdfunding was the name of the game, made famous by Kickstarter who, in 2012, broke the million-dollar mark for funds pledged to a single project. Crowdfunding was working, but for projects like iPod docks and video games. Could it also work to fund science, where the benefits of the donations are less tangible and perhaps, more abstract?
Luan and Wu believed that crowdfunding would indeed would work for science, so they launched Mycroryza. The business model was simple: Scientists in need of funding would submit a project to the Mycroryza website, populate the project page with goals and objectives, enter a target donation amount, and solicit their own networks to get individual pledges. If the goal amount was reached, pledges would be collected and the researcher given the majority of the funds. Mycroryza would take a small percentage of the contributions, primarily in exchange for vetting projects before they were allowed on the site, and for upkeep and promotion of the website.
Now almost six years old, the company has evolved, complete with a new company name: Experiment. It has helped to fund more than 760 science projects with more than $7.69 million pledged through individual contributors. Recently funded projects answer questions such as, “Why do wolverines need snow?,” “Can music influence the longevity of human blood cells?,” and “What impacts loggerhead sea turtle hatch success?” While life science projects are a large part of Experiment, the site welcomes all sciences and hosts many engineering, computer science, social science, and even paleontology projects.
While Experiment is still in business and growing, other science crowdfunding ventures have not been so lucky. With similar business models, Petridish and Dodo are no longer active, perhaps due to a lack of early revenue, business investors, or founder commitment. Experiment, in fact, is still in the red, but expects to turn that around very soon.
“Denny and I are very committed to providing a home online for scientists to fund their work and share their discoveries directly with the public,” says Wu. “We view Experiment as a mission more than a company. Within the next month, Experiment will be profitable. At that point, Experiment will be able to provide a home online for scientists to fund their work and share their discoveries forever.”
Given that the success rate for receiving a federally funded research grant is less than 20%, the need for alternative sources of research funding means there is still a lot of room left in this space for more science crowdfunding. As such, in addition to Experiment, there are several newer science crowdfunding sites, each with their own approach and mission.
Crowd.Science is a U.K.-based company that hosts user research projects similar to Experiment, but has a platform more like Kickstarter. Pubfund.Science is a brand new nonprofit company, experimenting with the idea of crowdfunding for larger grants and incorporating crowdsourcing for experimental materials. MedStartr, founded around the same time as Experiment, focuses on life science startups using crowdfunding as a way to help companies promote themselves and gauge interest by meeting funding goals and tracking activity.
One aspect of crowdfunding that all of the founders of these companies can agree on is that for a project to be successfully funded, the project owner must be able to plan and execute a solid marketing campaign.
“Marketing just means making it easy for people to notice you, relate to you, remember you, and tell their friends about you,” says Wu, quoting from a marketing article she read recently. “For scientists on Experiment, this means sharing your science in a way that’s relatable and memorable. The work the researcher puts into sharing their project is incredibly important to the success of the funding. For every 100 page views, on average, 2% will convert to donors. When you reach the right channels, we’ve seen conversion jump to 15%. We work with every researcher on the platform individually and know that most traffic is from direct email, Facebook, and Twitter.” (Editor’s note: the traffic from Facebook may change based on recent announcements from Facebook.
The average project size on Experiment is $4,241 with an average individual pledge of $131, meaning that each project on average would need at least 32 individual donors. Friends and family are certainly main contributors, but for a truly successful campaign, the word needs to reach further than the project owner’s primary network.
“People will back someone that they know and trust,” says Natalie Jonk, cofounder of Crowd.Science. “A big onus of promotion is on the project owner because they’re the ones that have the network in their particular subject area. However, at Crowd.Science, we do give academics guidance on how to reach out to their network and motivate prospective contributors. For a project trying to reach 5,000£, there may be up to 100 individual contributors, so it is important to reach out to potential funders effectively.”
MedStartr has a more hands-on approach to helping the startups on their site gain attention.
“MedStartr generates buzz better than most ad agencies,” boasts Alex Fair, serial entrepreneur and CEO of MedStartr. “Pressing the Twitter button on the site writes a perfect Tweet [that is] easy to share, and the platform naturally generates SEO. We also provide samples of messaging and steps that the startup team can take on a daily basis to promote their companies. In terms of authenticity, it’s [important] to see a message directly from the startup team. We also have a public relations arm that has helped to generate hundreds of stories written about the teams.”
Incentives to Donating
Typically, on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, donors are promised tangible products in exchange for their donation. Unlike some of the other, similar competitors in this space, MedStartr can sometimes offer tangible products to funders. One of the most popular offerings on MedStartr is a donation in exchange for a meeting with a potential partner or investor. This exchange is valuable to both the startup and the donor, and has resulted in the success of several companies using MedStartr as a springboard to commercialization.
Companies only running scientific experiments (as opposed to those developing an actual product) cannot often provide such incentives. Instead, donors are rewarded with a peek into the experimental process and results of the project.
“If science crowdfunding is going to work for academics, the feedback to donors needs to be results and impact,” says Wu. “Over 65 of our projects have been published in peer-reviewed papers with the results.”
Online and in-person seminars are encouraged on Crowd.Science. Its most successful project, featuring LSD research, drew hundreds of attendees.
“The LSD research drew in a young, quite educated and edgy crowd,” recalls Jonk. “I spoke with some backers after the seminar, and they liked the [model of using a] forum to ask questions around the research. Another seminar was hosted at Kew Gardens in London, which has one of the largest seed banks in the world. The seminar was around aloe vera research, and drew in quite a different crowd of older and retired individuals. Both evenings were really nice, and gave an opportunity for the public to interact with scientists and learn more about the research projects and science behind them.”
Pubfund.Science is using classroom participation—in an experiment for the bioprospecting of cyanobacteria—as a fundraising incentive. According to the Pubfund.Science website, the company says if students enough money, it will “send an algae test kit custom-made for the classroom of your choice. Students will learn basic microbiology principles, while culturing local, wild algae. The samples will then be returned to us for testing and sequencing. We’ll see what useful strains we can find in different areas across the country, and [the project will] give us a better understanding of what kinds of cyanobacteria thrive in each location.”
The process of science crowdfunding has a slew of benefits for society on top of the obvious collection of money to fund experiments. Scientists are forced to really think about the far-reaching impact of their research and convince laymen that their work is worth a donation of their hard-earned cash. The better scientists are at communicating with the public, the more the public is engaged and willing to back science programs. From children in the classroom to retirees, science crowdfunding will continue to impact and inform, elevating society as a whole.